3 March 2012
Margaret Hale…. We recognise the type: the capable poorer cousin who has spent most of her childhood living in a style some way beyond whatever her parents could afford for her. Fortunately, this isn’t what Gaskell is really interested in, and at the start of the novel this arrangement is about to end. She has given Margaret this experience to endow her with the kind of stateliness and confidence you can only get from living like a lady. So we’re not in the same territory as Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, in which Lucy Snowe spends all her time hiding, quite often literally. (That novel appeared two years before this one, and Gaskell was an admirer.) When Margaret is faced with a potentially awkward social situation – a meeting with a strange man – she goes into the room ‘with the straight, fearless, dignified presence habitual to her.’ She is used to this sort of encounter, but Thornton the industrialist – for it is he – is not. Her grandeur wrong-foots him, and he mistakes her confidence for haughtiness. (Gaskell helpfully lets us know this is always happening when people first meet her.) From where he’s standing, ‘his being there was of no concern to the beautiful countenance….’ And we’re off, away into the archetypal scenario of the man and woman who are each unable to see the real person in front of them. The novel could have been called Pride and Prejudice if the title hadn’t already been taken.
This is Chapter 7, and a lot of what has gone before is a kind of preamble. The novel was published in two- or three-chapter episodes, and readers might have been deceived by the first couple of these. The early scenes in fashionable London, with her cousin Edith – a conventionally pretty bride-to-be – and her rather silly aunt seem to be setting the scene for a comedy of drawing-room manners. We’re given plenty of signs that Margaret would be a winner in this upper-middle class social game if given the chance – but following Edith’s marriage she leaves it, apparently forever. She travels home to the New Forest with her worthy but down-at-heel father. He’s the parish priest in a village so idyllic an admirer of Margaret’s thought she was making it up when she described it. But when he comes to visit a few weeks later – he really is an admirer – he sees she is telling the truth. He is there to propose to her – as a lawyer starting to make his way in London he wouldn’t be a bad match – but we already know how principled she is. There’s no love there, and she refuses him.
Again, readers might think they know where this is going, that these two will get together in the end… but no. Gaskell is more interested in the complete honesty of her heroine – and that it runs in the family. Neither parent is perfect – her mother is recognisably the sister of the silly aunt in London, and her father tends to shut himself away from their company – but they are good Christians, spending time on providing genuine help for the poor in the parish. Margaret is like them, only better. When her father is too much of a coward to tell his wife that his doubts are forcing him to leave the ministry, he asks Margaret to do it. Which she does – and we get the impression that no one else could have broken the news carefully enough for her mother not to collapse in self-pity. All she’d ever wanted was for Mr Hale to seek a better living, and now he’s going to make them move to – wait for it – a mill-town in the industrial north of England. Goodness.
So Margaret is perfect, yes? Not at all. It isn’t immediately clear but, having been brought up in Harley Street, she is a snob. We find this out in Helston, the New Forest village, when her mother bemoans the lack of society. At least, she says, if they moved to the other side of the parish there’d be the Gormans…. These wouldn’t do for Margaret. ‘Oh! I’m glad we don’t visit them. I don’t like shoppy people.’ The Gormans, y’see, made their fortune (gulp) in trade. Margaret says she’s fine with ‘cottagers and labourers’, and we know this is true – and we also know how much they love her – but the nouveau riche? Forget it.
We don’t know it yet, but this is the attitude she’s going to have to hold up for examination when they move to Milton-Northern, a thinly disguised Manchester. It’s the diametric opposite of Helston – that’s the point Gaskell has been hammering away at for chapters by the time they get there – and one of her first encounters is the one with Thornton. He is more shaken by the meeting than she is, because she dismisses him in her own mind whilst he is… interested. He stays longer than he intended, makes sure that the landlord of the house they rent re-papers the walls in the way she’s said she would prefer. He sees beauty in her, despite Gaskell’s having told us that she doesn’t possess her cousin’s conventional good looks. But, as we know, she holds herself well. Whereas he… he’s just a rough factory manager, with so little education he’s employing her father as a tutor for him and some like-minded friends.
And in Chapter 8, after a far from comfortable winter of discontent, Margaret is just beginning to understand something about the workers. She always seems to be out when it’s the start or end of a shift, is always being jostled. Their ways are different, they are disconcertingly direct – but they are only people. A middle-aged factory-worker compliments her more politely than some, and later she meets him again with his ailing daughter, and promises to visit them. He is Nicholas Higgins, and I should think we’ll be seeing more of him.
As you were. Gaskell keeps having Margaret and Thornton stumble into circumstantial misunderstandings – the latest one being that he interprets her not shaking hands for haughtiness, whereas it is simply not the custom in the polite circles she’s been brought up in – so, however appealing they find one another’s company there’s an edge of irritation. It isn’t only accident: Gaskell is also careful to draw the lines of political and moral opposition, as each of them tries to explain to the other the beliefs they have held all their lives. What I’m finding most interesting is the vexed topic – they’re both often ‘vexed’ by what the other says – of the confrontational positions held by employers and employees. Thornton starts it, by referring to industrial relations as a battle – even though he seems sincere when he says later that the two sides are mutually dependent. Margaret tries to suggest that the power he has – he’s called it a benign ‘despotism’ himself, believing that this is the only model that can work – carries responsibilities with it. He doesn’t know that she’s been visiting Bessy Higgins, who seems to be dying of a lung disease brought on by poor working conditions. He takes her to mean that he should be lecturing them about how to live their lives….
This debate, in the presence of her father, is in Chapter 15, and other stuff has been going on before this. We’ve found out about Thornton’s background, because he’s far from ashamed of it and he tells Margaret and her father. He was being schooled as a gent until the family fell on hard times – we later find out his father gambled his money away and committed suicide – so that he, his young sister and his mother had to survive on ‘fifteen shillings a week’. They managed, he worked his way up from draper’s assistant and… it’s left him with the wrong idea that if other people don’t manage so well, it must be their fault. His mother is like him, only more so. Hardship has left her flinty, and she doesn’t take to the better lifestyle her son can now afford for them. Her prejudices about the ‘aristocratic south’ have, so far, made it impossible for her to take the Hales seriously. She considers Hale something of waste of space, Margaret a likely gold-digger (she’s hugely irritated by the way Margaret sincerely laughs off this idea), and Mrs Hale a probable hypochondriac. The only soft spot she has is for Fanny, Thornton’s droopy sister.
She’s wrong about almost everybody, particularly Margaret’s mother. Gaskell has been dropping broader and broader hints that she’s really ill. Margaret worries, her father tries to ignore the signs… and it seems likely they are leaving it too late. At least they have the name of a doctor at last. And meanwhile there’s Bessy. Margaret had neglected to visit the Higginses – Mrs Thornton’s visit just when she’s planning to go, and then she forgets, apparently – and is shocked by the girl’s weakness when she meets her on the street. At the Higgins house Nicholas doesn’t hide his annoyance at first, until he recognises Margaret’s genuine concern. He opens up to her, and this is where she gets her information from about what it’s like to be a factory employee. (She’s annoyed in a later chapter when her mother lets Thornton know this – something to be filed away for later.)
And we have a sub-plot. Earlier in the novel we’d heard about Frederick, Margaret’s brother. He had been a subaltern in the navy and, having been somehow involved in a mutiny – the details are vague at first – he is now forced to live far from England. Now we find out more of the story: his captain was a bully and almost directly caused the death of a man who lost his footing in his hurry rather than face the lash. A mutiny took place – we still don’t know the details – and men were hanged for it. This was something like six or seven years ago, but there’s no talk of any statute of limitations. Poor Mrs Hale dreams of seeing him one last time, and I can’t imagine Gaskell putting that idea into our heads unless she was going to do something with it. Get him to England, at great risk – and get him caught, no doubt. Will Thornton, the benevolent dictator, come to the rescue of the rebel against despotism? (I read the novel ten or fifteen years ago, and I can’t actually remember.)
Will that do for now? It’s still a reworking of Pride and Prejudice at one level, but it’s a lot of other things besides. There’s a far more realistic take on working conditions and industrial relations than in Dickens’ Hard Times. (Gaskell was working for his Household Words and knew all about that novel, published the year before.) And she wants her characters to have more plausibility about them: she looks to Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte rather than to Dickens, aiming to show how it’s often seemingly unimportant little attitudes and prejudices that keep us apart, not great all-encompassing differences.
The relationship between the alpha male and, let’s face it, the alpha female continues to be the main driver. Gaskell does that thing that serious 19th Century authors often do: whilst denying their heroines conventional beauty, they make up for it in a clutch of other qualities. It happens with the mouse-like Fanny Price in Austen’s Mansfield Park, it happens with Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre: well before the end of the novels very striking men are extremely taken with them, are willing to set aside pride, prejudice – yes, those two again – and personal inclination to throw in their lot with women regarded as rather ordinary. In fact, Gaskell makes it easy for herself. While she keeps up the myth that Margaret is no beauty, her descriptions of raven hair, oval cheek and ivory shoulder make her into a strikingly statuesque figure. She even has poor Bessy assuring Margaret that she recognises her from her dream of an angel who comes to help her – and this is followed by Margaret’s attendance at a dinner given by Thornton in which she knocks them all dead in a silk gown from the Harley Street days. One thing you definitely can’t call Margaret is ordinary-looking.
Poor Thornton hasn’t a chance. Whatever brings them together, he is always struck not only by these physical assets – I’ll come back to them in a minute – but by all the other qualities that Gaskell has been establishing as intrinsic to her nature since Chapter 1. Morally, she’s a rock. Every single one of her thoughts and actions derives from her honesty and her feeling for the rest of humanity. If she ever has a selfish thought, Gaskell doesn’t tell us about it. As for the way she looks… this is what Thornton sees in Chapter 24 when he is finally unable to resist making his position clear: ‘Her eyelids were dropped half over her eyes… her lips were just parted over [her teeth], allowing the white line to be seen between their curves. Her slow deep breathing dilated her thin and beautiful nostrils.’ Before the end of the paragraph he’s taken in her ‘fine-grained skin, the oval cheek, the rich outline of her mouth….’ We get the picture. And I remember that the whiteness of Thornton’s teeth is something that Margaret has also noticed, whilst considering Thornton no looker. It can’t have been a common feature in the middle of the 19th Century.
The indirect cause of the crisis for Thornton has been the strike that is one of the other main drivers of the novel. An aspect of his arrogant nature is his insistence that the mill owners should be able to dictate every single aspect of their employees’ working lives. As he sees it, there is no reason why he should need to explain himself to anybody, least of all them. His mother puts the terms of the battle more crudely than he would himself: the greedy and feckless workers would have it all for themselves if given the chance. It seems to be a big part of Gaskell’s thesis that the unwillingness of either side to put their case to the other – something she has Margaret comment on – only entrenches attitudes more deeply.
At the dinner-party, the talk inevitably comes around to the strike. Margaret doesn’t think politically, obviously, so she listens to what people say. She’s open to persuasion that the captains of industry must be allowed to make the decisions they see fit, and Thornton feels that she agrees with the position he states. But he can’t see the whole picture like we can. He hasn’t seen how she has been equally persuaded that it simply can’t be right for some employees to be living in poverty. Margaret, Gaskell’s moral heroine, can see that despotism and a perpetual state of confrontation are not going to work.
Not long after the party, Margaret is on an errand to the Thorntons’ house. We see now why Gaskell has them living over the shop: the strike is reaching a crisis at the moment that Margaret is let in, as a crowd is about to lay siege to the whole complex. As they beat down the gates, Margaret’s overarching moral perspective forces her to speak to Thornton. She is galvanised by the prospect of what will happen to the protestors when the militia arrive – as they will, because he has sent for them. Hungry and desperate men will receive terrible injuries or worse; surely he could prevent unnecessary bloodshed by going out to the yard to speak to them…?
He does so, against what he considers to be his better judgment. Things turn ugly almost immediately – these are the hotheads, not the thoughtful workers like Higgins – and Margaret herself goes out to remonstrate with them. It’s a cleverly contrived crisis on Gaskell’s part: she makes it seem perfectly plausible for Margaret to throw her arms around Thornton as a kind of shield once there’s a threat of missiles being thrown – and receives a flesh wound to the forehead. Mrs Thornton is happy to look after her properly – doctor, cab home – but once the servants’ gossip about the incident gets to her via the increasingly irritating Fanny, her defences go up. How to keep this conniving gold-digger away from her son? (I’m reminded of another novel in which A-list players in the morality stakes are constantly misjudged by people who don’t even have the right to lick their shoes: in Middlemarch Dorothea and Ladislaw have a lot to put up with.)
This is what leads to the scene in Chapter 24. There’s so much high talk at the Thorntons’, in a chapter called ‘Mistakes’, that the strong-minded Thornton decides, in a chapter teasingly and misleadingly called ‘Mistakes cleared up’, to sort it out once and for all. As if. As he, yet again against his better judgment, tells her he loves her, all he manages to do is to further entrench her in her view that she doesn’t even like him. Oh dear.
Families are a big thing in this novel, and that theme incorporates – or is incorporated by – a raft of ideas about class. Margaret is almost blind to it, despite her earlier snobbery concerning the ‘shoppy’ types down south. Now, she’d as soon spend an afternoon with the Higginses as with anyone who would be conventionally regarded as more suitable. Now, apparently, she prefers the mill owners’ shop talk at the Thorntons’ to the thin gruel she was used to in London. Her disappearing snobbery seems to be another stage in Margaret’s inexorable progress towards unassailable righteousness. It goes with her mysterious transformation into a beauty, as though Gaskell has fallen in love with her heroine…. She’s even beginning, for the first time ever, to show signs of wit. She describes the middle class women’s talk in terms of a parlour game in which players have to fit into each sentence as many high-status nouns as will confirm their wealth and prestige. how we laughed.
Margaret is the granddaughter of a gent, Thornton is the son of a gent – Gaskell seems unwilling for either of her characters to spring from the wrong gene-pool – but, nevertheless, they differ over what makes a gentleman. Thornton is only interested in ‘the man’, and likes to ignore the privileges he had before his father’s crash. Manners are far more important to Margaret… but perhaps she’ll learn: she and Thornton will never be an item if she keeps mistaking his brusqueness for a lack of intrinsic quality.
There are other family-based issues. We’ve seen Mrs Thornton, fiercely protective of a son who is perfectly capable of looking after himself, and unable to see anything of value in anyone outside her family. She is one inadequate model. Margaret’s father is another, weak to the point of needing his 19-year-old daughter to shield him from whatever the world assails him with. This includes, crucially, the truth about his wife’s illness. She’s no hypochondriac – Mrs Thornton’s judgment is based entirely on prejudice – and isn’t long for this world. (Margaret’s ill-fated errand to the Thorntons’ was to seek a ‘water-bed’ they have, recommended by the astute and competent Dr Donaldson.)
Running parallel are the family lives of the workers. The Higginses we know about – Bessy isn’t getting any better – but Gaskell has now introduced the Bouchers. Theirs is a too-large family – I’m not going to begin to speculate on Gaskell’s views concerning family planning – and Margaret and her mother have managed to get some money and a food parcel to them. Boucher has now appeared again: Margaret mentions his name as one of the protestors. Now Thornton is vowing that justice must be done if the ‘rioters’ are to learn the error of their ways: he’s going to press charges.
Finally… Mrs Hale’s greatest regret is that she will never see her son again. But I notice that the title of the next chapter is ‘Frederick’. Ah.
One thing about this book: stuff happens. Specifically, three deaths, a fugitive in constant danger of discovery, characters subject to enough emotional turbulence in a few weeks to last a lifetime… and more economic theory than I can ever remember reading in a novel.
Gaskell had the crunch encounter between Margaret and Thornton in Chapter 24… which gives her 28 chapters to change Margaret’s mind. It’s a slow process, obviously, because as he stands Thornton isn’t good enough for her. He’s too arrogant, has no feeling for the rights of his workers – he provoked the riot by employing Irish blacklegs who remain on the books after the strike – and his iron-like determination to win at all costs has made him entirely lose touch with his inner self. Up to this point, he has never met anybody as sure of himself as he is, and after speaking to Margaret he is in a kind of daze. His iron – a word Gaskell has other characters use when describing him – has met something it can’t break. He knew this before he even tried, had decided there was no point speaking to her about his love, but felt he had at least to meet her to thank her for what she did. He has always spoken what is in his mind, so he has told her of his feelings despite himself. And she has told him of hers.
In his daze he climbs on to an omnibus to a country village, wanders around for a while, gets back on the bus to the town and goes home. His mother is prepared for the worst – she knew what he was going to say to Margaret even if he didn’t – and is prepared for Margaret to become mistress of the house. After he’s put her right and listened to her tirade, things settle down: they will never speak about it, or Margaret, again. They think they can rule their emotions: ‘a stranger might have gone away and thought he had never seen such frigid indifference of demeanour between near relations.’ That’s at the end of Chapter 26, which leaves exactly 26 chapters more for them to learn a bit of emotional intelligence.
Gaskell starts to do it incrementally, offering Thornton chances to show that he isn’t a pig. His gifts of fruit for Margaret’s dying mother – and his determination that in order to be fair to himself he must bring them to the house – have him showing human kindness, albeit not without a selfish motive, for the first time in his life. And he’s always been polite to the point of gallantry to her father. What’s not to like – aside from Margaret’s feeling of revulsion whenever his name comes up? The Thorntons offer their carriage for the funeral – Mrs Hale has died, as expected – so, after hating the idea of him attending she has to let it happen. He sees that she is not holding up as well as the servant had suggested, sees the inner anguish she must be going through. As it happens, for reasons that might become clear later, Gaskell makes sure Margaret doesn’t see him.
Meanwhile, as I said, stuff happens. Gaskell needs Frederick in the country, so she has Mrs Hale fretting about never seeing him again when Margaret is at her weakest, just after the awful encounter with Thornton. To soothe her mother, Margaret has written a letter and posted it before her father gets home. When Frederick gets home two or three weeks later he’s as romantically heroic as you’d expect. But it’s Margaret who has to be the rock, again, as he and his father collapse in separate heaps when Mrs Hale dies without recognising her son. This is what the servant sees and reports to Thornton. But inside… well, we know.
Plot alert. Dixon, the servant who has served Mrs Hale since before she stopped being posh, reports that she has seen a nasty piece of work hanging around. This is Leonards, who was a third-rate sailor when Frederick was in the navy, and he fancies the £100 reward for his capture. Hasty exit from the town, encounter with Leonards on the station platform – he’s a porter now, and pushes Margaret aside to get to his man – followed by a scuffle during which Fred pushes him off the platform. Fred escapes to London – Margaret has written an introductory letter to Lennox, the ex-suitor from half a novel ago – and the subsequent death of Leonards.
So that’s all right, yes? Don’t be ridiculous. The fall wasn’t the main cause of death – that’s down to unnamed internal problems exacerbated by drink – but witnesses, including Thornton himself, saw Margaret on the station. At the point I’ve just reached, in a chapter entitled ‘False and True’, Margaret has just – wait for it – lied to a policeman who asks her if she was at the station. This uncharacteristic behaviour – I think we can assume she’s never done it before in her life – shocks her so much she falls ‘prone on the floor in a dead swoon.’ I should hope so. What she doesn’t know is that Thornton assumes that the man she was with is her lover. You couldn’t make it up.
What else? The Higginses. Nicholas is a big union man and is mortified by the riot, having advocated a policy of passive resistance until Boucher had stirred up criminal activity. He’s had a row with Boucher, has threatened – not really meaning it – to report him to the police, and Boucher has punched him. (Luckily, we find out later, Thornton isn’t going to press charges. But Gaskell must have a reason for stirring up so much mud.) And Nicholas has other things on his mind. Bessy dies quietly, and Margaret finds herself telling the girl’s sister Mary that she’ll view the body. Bessy’s dying wish – no comment – is that Mary will keep their father away from drink. He’s not a drunkard, but he drinks for comfort… which is what he’s been doing when he arrives home. He’ll carry on, too – until Margaret tells him he mustn’t. How to stop him? Invite him home for a cup of tea. Only on the way back with him does she think about how her hypersensitive father will cope.
He copes fine, and Margaret is in on some of the conversation. Gaskell has Nicholas making what must be a sore point for her: the masters constantly tell their employees that they have to face the facts of economic life, but never explain the principles to them. Adam Smith isn’t named, but Higgins paraphrases him – and describes how his own boss (not Thornton) patronises them by telling them they are too stupid to understand. It’s that old bugbear of Gaskell’s, the unwillingness of either side to speak to the other as rational people. (As if to keep a balance, she has Nicholas describe some restrictive union practices he hates, like sending non-members to Coventry.)
So, plenty of hares running: Fred, now kicking his heels in London as he waits for Lennox to come back from a trip; the strikers facing defeat after Boucher has undermined their case; Margaret facing the possibility of having to testify under oath that she was not on the station platform; and how will Thornton, still quite unable to face life without the only woman he has ever noticed, react when he hears the fib? One last thing: another dying wish, Mrs Hale’s, is for Mrs Thornton to look after the motherless Margaret as though she were her own daughter. This is too much for Mrs T, but she promises to help Margaret if she is in need of it. Plenty of possibilities there, I should think – and I still think Thornton will help Fred in his fight to clear his name.
I’m starting to wish that Gaskell would get on with it. We’ve known almost since the beginning how things have got to end up between Margaret and Thornton, but the deal is that the transition from mutual dislike to mutual love has to be plausible. Which takes a lot of time. Gaskell is rather clever at strewing obstacles in the path to true love which, somehow, also serve to strengthen their regard for one another. When Thornton catches Margaret in her lie – Gaskell, much to Margaret’s annoyance, makes him the magistrate in charge of a possible investigation – he doesn’t think the less of her. He leaves that to his mother, still in the role of second-rate moralist seeking to judge the woman who is way ahead of her in the ethics stakes. Thornton can see this, admires the effort of will it must have taken her to tell a lie. He thinks she’s doing it out of loyalty to her lover, but even that doesn’t make him love her any the less.
(The combination of unlucky circumstances leads to one of those moments you often get in novels that rely on such coincidences. After the late arrival of a letter from Frederick – had Margaret known he was safe she would not have needed to lie – she ruefully bewails the ‘slight cobwebs of chances’ that keep getting in the way. She doesn’t realise she’s in a novel, and who’s really in charge of her fate. The delayed letter idea is straight out of Romeo and Juliet: Frederick, like Friar Lawrence, entrusted it to someone else to deliver. When writing about Middlemarch I’ve referred to ‘the hand of authorial Providence’ – and Gaskell loves it.)
The incremental process of increasing mutual regard carries on. Just as Thornton is too good a judge of her character to suspect anything underhand in her behaviour, Margaret is too good a judge of his to think that he could share his mother’s suspicions. She knows she’s let herself down in the eyes of somebody she increasingly respects but, because Gaskell doesn’t want things to move too fast, she doesn’t understand why she is so bothered. She still thinks she doesn’t really like him – and, right up to Chapter 40, is still telling herself that any feeling he ever had for her is dead. At one point I stopped reading and told them, out loud, to get on with it. They weren’t listening to me – but a chapter or two later, when her godfather Mr Bell comes to visit and sees them together, he asks Mr Hale whether it’s struck him that they seem to have ‘what the French call a tendresse for each other’. Mr Hale is astounded by the idea – but asks Margaret later. She is highly troubled by his questions, but doesn’t deny anything.
The other plot threads sometimes seem subservient to this one. Higgins, unable to get work in the town now the strike is over, isn’t only there so that Gaskell can illustrate the plight of such men. Sure, he has a long conversation with Margaret about how desperate he is for work, and we get his idealised vision of working on the land in the South – until she puts him right about the lives of field-labourers. (This seems to be Gaskell’s way of balancing the idealised picture of the countryside that she usually offers. During these chapters, at a particularly trying time, Margaret seeks comfort by walking until she is right out of the town – and we know about Thornton’s dark bus-ride of the soul after she’s refused his offer.)
Higgins’ main function in the novel now seems to have moved on from representing the decency of the working man – although I’ll come back to that – and now he’s there to assist in Gaskell’s project of bringing our hapless lovers together. Thornton is able to see how considerate Margaret has been to suggest that Higgins seeks work from him – and we are able to see how Margaret expects Thornton to rise above his qualms about the union man. She expects him to be fair-minded. He isn’t at first – the long-held prejudices are too strong, and he disbelieves Higgins’ story about needing to look after some orphan children – but, after further consideration, he is. He offers Higgins a job, and our pair are closer than ever.
The orphans are Boucher’s children. He’s drowned himself out of sheer desperation and his widow, always a sickly woman, is now at death’s door. Gaskell presents Higgins as common decency personified – which is why it’s only a matter of time before Thornton perceives his real quality. And who has brought together these two representatives of the industrial divide? Who is the one, as the novel goes on, who is coming to represent an increasingly unassailable position of moral heroine? (At the same time, who is Gaskell now routinely describing as ‘beautiful’?) Well, we know.
Anything else? Margaret gets letters from her cousin Edith in Italy, now playing the role of doting mother – and deciding that life back in Harley Street would be infinitely preferable. So that’s where she and her family are going to move to, once her husband has bought himself out of the army. Gaskell occasionally drops in these glimpses of other people’s carefree lives. Mr Bell’s life in Oxford is another. She has Mr Hale suggest to Margaret that she should go to London for a couple of weeks, but she is too self-denying. What would he do without her? Edith is married to the brother of the man who proposed to Margaret all that time ago, Lennox – the one who is now seeking witnesses who will be able to clear Frederick’s name. Margaret almost gives up hope of this after Lennox writes to her father that the prospects look bleak – but, as I’ve said, she doesn’t know she’s in a novel. You just watch.
At the point I’ve reached, Thornton has decided to give up on Margaret. During the evening at the Hales’ house he overhears something that Mr Hale says to Mr Bell: ‘A letter from Henry Lennox. It makes Margaret very hopeful.’ This is one of those moments that make you want to put the book down. We know what Thornton will assume it to mean, that it confirms his suspicions about another man… so he stops going to the Hales. At first he pretends it’s owing to pressure of work but soon, to all intents and purposes, he’s no longer a pupil. And both he and Margaret are miserable.
Are we nearly there yet?
Not far now. Gaskell puts aside almost everything else in order to get on with the Margaret/ Thornton plot. There are casualties, notably Mr Hale: almost as soon as he’s out of town, visiting Mr Bell in Oxford, Gaskell lets him have one of those problem-free, painless deaths that Victorian authors dole out to harmless characters now surplus to requirements. (There’s one in David Copperfield, which I re-read recently. Dickens had done all he could with one particular character, and needed to get rid.) As our pair mope about considering their separate bleak futures – Gaskell really does have them each doing this – everything is contrived to put the finishing touches on to the glowing image each has of the other.
But not yet, because there are still seven chapters to go. Margaret is now back in Harley Street with ‘the Lennoxes’ – Edith and her rather dim husband – and it feels to both her and Thornton like a million miles from the place where, as she admits to somebody or other, she was happy. Of course, that’s not what she said in Thornton’s hearing before she left: she says he will be glad to leave a place which was so painful to her. I’m not quoting exactly, but it’s near enough – and for him it confirms… etc.
What, you want details? Quickly then…. Gaskell makes a lot of use of Mr Bell, a character with only the shadowiest existence before the death of Mrs Hale and not much more rounded since. Hale’s dying in Oxford gives Gaskell the excuse to get him up to Milton in order to oil a few wheels. Guess who’s in the train north? Bell tells him – it’s Thornton, obviously – that Margaret has no family except her brother… etc. Was he in Milton at the time of Mrs Hale’s death, Thornton asks hopefully. Nope, says Bell – but we know that error will be corrected eventually. And, basically, he arranges for the Lennoxes and Margaret’s aunt to come up and agree to take her back to London with an income that Bell is going to provide – to go with the promise of everything he has when he dies. Suddenly she’s a woman with prospects, so often a great convenience in 19th Century novels.
Lennox, the one who once proposed to Margaret, makes a few appearances – and, reader, he’s found wanting. Bell sees how Margaret doesn’t want to be left alone with him, has heard that he once fancied her… and, in a conversation about Mr Hale’s resignation, Bell is repelled by Lennox’s easy dismissal of such provincial acts of unnecessary conscience. Definitely not a contender, that one. And… we find out that Thornton is beginning to work with Higgins. Thornton has an idea for a works canteen which will be able to provide good food made from bulk-purchased ingredients. Margaret hasn’t heard about that yet – but he’s told Bell, so we know the information will get to her soon: at the point I’ve reached, Bell and Margaret are about to set off for an overnight visit to Helston, and there’ll be plenty of opportunities to talk. In Harley Street her cousin has fallen into her old ways of having Margaret do everything for her, not that she minds. But she’s bored to tears, senses a great emptiness in her life – well, duh – and feels a trip might do her good. All we need is for Thornton to be strolling through the woods when they get there, trying to get a sense of the woman he’s lost. I’m not predicting this, but such a thing wouldn’t be the least plausible coincidence in the book.
Chapters 46-52 – to the end
About five pages from the end I was wondering how Gaskell was going to sort it. Margaret is in London, Thornton is in London – there’s been some hasty-seeming plotting to put him on the back foot financially, and to put her very much ahead – but it’s not happening. Four pages, three, two, and they’re discussing a possible financial bail-out… and finally: ‘His voice was hoarse, and trembling with tender passion, as he said––
Phew. After a preamble of something like 400 pages, Gaskell cuts to the chase with only a page and a half left to go.
But what is remarkable about these final chapters is Gaskell’s self-assured bringing together of the different threads. Almost from the start I’ve been deriding the elements of a conventional romantic plot, but Gaskell takes it in a new direction by managing to combine it with 19th Century global economics and a model of industrial relations that seems forward-looking even in 2012. What attracts Margaret to Thornton in the end – we haven’t heard anything about his white teeth for a long time – is his ability to become a manager who cares. He’s no more capable as an industrialist at the end than he is at the beginning but she’s given him the means to be, basically, more like her in his dealings with people. This is a highly Christian novel, uncomfortably so in a 21st Century reader’s eyes – I haven’t really mentioned it, but it’s always there – and Margaret can see that Thornton has finally learnt how he should live.
Before this devoutly wished-for consummation, these final chapters have to get a few things established. First, there’s no going back to Helston. People have died, cottages have been demolished – and Margaret is embarrassed that Mr Bell hears a description of rustic ‘paganism’ involving the burning of a cat. To top it all in a novel in which Margaret’s memories of the parsonage have come to symbolise everything good about life in the country… she discovers that the new incumbent has (gulp!) changed it. But, while there, Margaret gets the expected promise from Bell: he will tell Thornton the circumstances leading to her lie whenever he next sees him. Job done. Except…
…there are still six chapters left, and it mustn’t be too easy for either of the lovers. Gaskell has to cut off the get out of jail clause: in his sleep and without pain, Bell dies. So it goes. It looks as though Margaret is going to be stuck in the pointless Harley Street world forever. She has long ago decided she will never marry, has told Edith of this – Gaskell rather cleverly makes Edith ever more infuriatingly childish and self-centred, presumably to increase our sympathy for Margaret – and fends off Lennox’s careful insinuation of himself into the frame. So she can’t go back to her Helston past, can’t really stand living in the Harley Street present. Gaskell leaves her to stew for a while, contemplating a barren future in which the only children she will ever have to love will be Edith’s.
Meanwhile… we haven’t been back to Milton for ages, and things have moved on. Gaskell carefully outlines the details of Thornton’s increasing difficulties: in a few pages we get an object lesson in the hazards of risk-taking in a volatile commercial world, and he is left with a choice. He can sell up and pay off all his creditors; or he can risk everything in a speculation that will either make his fortune or bankrupt him, taking some of his creditors with him. Reader, he does the right thing – and by this time, somehow, it doesn’t seem to matter whether Margaret knows. We know, and we seem to be the ones Gaskell wants to convince. He’s left with his self-respect, the respect of the reader – but no money to run the mill. (If he’d risked all, he would have made a fortune and been considered, like some others in the town who did so, a great investor. But we know better.) It’s the men he feels sorry for because, through Margaret’s influence, he has had a complete change of attitude to them. As he – or someone else – puts it in a conversation later (in London near the end of the novel, within Margaret’s hearing), he only needed the experience of meeting the men as individuals. He and Higgins are almost friends.
So it’s Higgins who tells Thornton about Frederick at the railway station. Nobody knows the story, of course – except, Gaskell has him explain, his daughter Mary, working for the Hales at the time. I’d forgotten that, but Gaskell hasn’t – and I wonder now if she had planned this revelation from the start as a kind of reward for Thornton’s new openness with his employee. Whatever. It’s the final piece in place for Thornton, or the removal of the last little qualm that he has. In his eyes, Margaret is magnificent. All her soul-searching about the lie she’s told – to her it’s become a ‘sin’ and she will never forgive herself for it, as Gaskell keeps telling us – has demonstrated her probity to an extent that a modern reader never really sees the need for. And now… absolution of the best possible kind. She’s won her man, and he’s won her.